The Dukes: Roots Run Deep
| Tia Nielsen . Photos | D.Q. Maurer II & the Duke family
This is the story of one family’s remarkable longevity turning Hoosier soil. “Our dad discouraged us from depending on the farm to make a living,” said Lanny Duke of the longtime farming family of White River Township. “However, I really enjoyed the entire [farming] experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world!” Taking his father, Ivan Duke’s, advice to heart, Lanny pursued a sales career in the optical industry. Nevertheless, the Duke family is now entering its eighth generation of farming. And with each generation, someone has risen to the challenge to make a go of farming.
Keeping it in the Family
Lanny’s brother, Norman (also part of the sixth generation), has seen to it that the family farm has remained in business. The farm acreage has grown from its original 160 acres to about 2,500 acres, including land owned or rented. The tilled land spreads from Franklin to Bargersville to Mooresville. Because of his love for the family farm, Lanny’s home is on a two-acre portion of the original 160 acres purchased in 1894. Despite holding full time jobs, both men always invested tremendous hours on the farm. “I helped my dad a lot — every weekend, weeknights and some vacations,” said Norm. “I tried to keep things going until Mike or Steve (his sons) could take over.”
Norm’s younger son, Steve, was the one ready to take on farming full time when his grandfather Ivan’s health began to fail. Steve’s brother, Mike, also worked as many hours as he could while simultaneously building his then-fledgling Duke Homes business.
Fighting for Independence
As a teen, family patriarch John Duke emigrated from the British Isles to the colonies. Loyalty to his new land led him to volunteer with Pennsylvania regiments during the Revolutionary War. Surprisingly, his service included a stint with the Pennsylvania Navy. According to an annotated family genealogy, John Duke managed to survive as a prisoner of war housed on a British Man o’ War in New York Harbor. The death rate on such prisoner ships was appallingly high. Yet John Duke survived, and after the war, he took up farming in Virginia.
For reasons unknown, John Duke and his wife, Sally, moved to Indiana in an area of Morgan County near the Johnson County line when he was 74 years old! As a Revolutionary Pensioner of Pennsylvania, Duke traveled regularly to Madison, Indiana to pick up his pension money. From 1830 until his death in 1841 in Johnson County, the stalwart Duke rode alone on horseback 80 miles through barely navigable forest trails. As a survivor of some of the War’s most famous battles — Brandywine, Trenton, Princeton and White Plains — forests filled with wolves, panthers and bears did not deter him.
John Duke’s grandson, John W. Duke, Sr., is who planted the family name in Johnson County farming history in 1894. He passed the land on to two of his sons, John W., Jr., and William. By 1904 all the land belonged to William. He was known for raising fine workhorses and quality mules. He died while his fifth child, Ivan, was in his mid-teens. Ivan Duke worked as a furnace installer during the winter months. His wife, Vera, also was employed. Over the course of the next 25 years, Ivan bought the land from his mother and siblings.
Ivan’s oldest son, Norm, and his bride, Pam, built a home on the family land in 1964 and still live there today. He began buying land in 1976 and bought the rest of the farm in 1989 from his mother after the death of his father. Norm and Pam worked full-time jobs for 36 and 38 years respectively – Pam as a bookkeeper and Norm as a CFO. Their sons, Mike and Steve, and Norm’s brother, Lanny, all worked to make a go of the family business. Everyone doing his and her part is how it has always been accomplished.
Norm and Lanny picked up a disciplined work ethic from their father, Ivan. “When I heard my dad’s tractor fire up, I was there,” said Norm, who learned to drive it by age 10. “Dad was a very hard worker. It was all about work back then. He was very honest – high moral character,” he added. “We were always out with dad,” said Lanny. “I got to ride on the fender of the tractor. In the 1950s, we’d go with dad to haul grain to market using the tractor and wagon. We always helped milk [the cows]. Dad did the morning milking before he drove the school bus,” remembered Lanny.
One Job is Not Enough
For 19 years Ivan drove a bus for Center Grove Schools. “He wouldn’t tolerate sloppiness or rudeness,” recalled Lanny. “The kids were good for him, out of respect. He had a stare. I’ve had him stop the bus in the middle of the road and stare in the rearview mirror – not say a word.” That stare settled it. Ivan was so trusted that, as farmers retired, they asked him to rent their land so they could remain in their homesteads. Pam Duke said, “People trusted the way Norm’s dad treated the land. He treated it like it was his own.”
Sundays were for church and Sunday School. Norm remembered his mother, Vera, as a wonderful cook. “We had pie six days a week and a cake on Sunday.” Every Sunday, relatives and their kids would show up unannounced just in time for dinner. “Mom would have to cook for all of them,” Norm said. Such was country hospitality in the 40s and 50s. During harvest, “she would bring pie and ice cream to the field,” Norm added. Vera was known as “The Candy Lady” for her confections, especially peanut brittle. She sold many batches in the late fall to help with Christmas.
“I have so much respect for that generation. We can’t learn enough from them. They didn’t complain. They did whatever had to be done,” Lanny noted. “In 1946, our church building burned down. They did bazaars and food tents at the Johnson County Fair – whatever it took to raise the money to rebuild it [without borrowing money],” he added.
A love for competition runs through the Duke line. Ivan, Norm, Lanny, Mike, Steve, and their children played sports for Center Grove High School. Norm fondly recalled his father attending his basketball and football games despite the pressures of never-ending farm work.
Mike Duke explained, “My dad owns all the land. Steve and Norm farm it.” Steve’s wife, Libby, pitches in with meals and running errands at planting and harvest time. Pam Duke oversees the bulk of feeding the men working the fields. Steve’s youngest son, Lane, adores being outdoors and may be the eighth generation to carry on the farm. While Mike still owns some land, he rents it out. “I just love the farming community – the closeness and the community,” said Marcia, Mike’s wife of twenty-five years and a farm girl from Morgan County. “They are there in good times and the bad.”
Connection with the Land
“When the hard work is past, you realize the benefits,” said Mike. “It’s a way of life. You’re dealing with the elements. What God’s provided – the soil, the crops. There is some connection to it. It’s sort of spiritual. You work hard to prepare the land. You put the seed in the ground. It’s total trust. You learn how to take care of the land God has given.
“The work ethic helps build knowledge, wisdom, and common sense. You learn how to change a turbo on a tractor or how to change oil. You have to figure it out. Look at it and understand the situation. I love the family bonding of working together. It is extremely, extremely important. It is a way of life.”